Early in the Rusty P’s warm-up set for Public Enemy Thursday night at Summerfest, DJ “Madhatter” Lee announced the group would be digging deep into their old albums for the next few songs. “And when you’ve been rapping for 20 years,” Lee said, “you have a lot of albums.”
He wasn’t kidding. For a blissful 90 minutes, the reunited P’s lineup treated an appreciative and ever-growing Miller Lite Oasis crowd to two decades’ worth of upbeat, infectious, and still-fresh hip-hop. Joining the core duo of Phantom Channel and Count Classic were original and past members including Lee, Oneself, Dana Coppa, Vincent VanGREAT, and Miltown Beatdown favorite Mike Regal. Despite the nostalgic vibe, it was some of the P’s newest tracks that made the biggest impression. 2014 single “Down To This” was a perfect showcase for Phantom Channel and Count Classic’s drum-tight vocal interplay, while brand-new songs like the excellent “LVL Up” and “The Ones” (the latter from the just-released collaboration with producer LMNtylist, LMNoP’s), gave each member a moment to shine. Lee’s contributions, in particular, were stellar, as the 88Nine personality remains one of the finest DJs in the city.
And what would a hip-hop show be without a pot-related shout-out to a local alderman? “Y’all got to give it up for Ald. Nik Kovac!” exclaimed Oneself near the end of the group’s set, in reference to the alderman’s successful campaign to lower the fine on marijuana possession. Sure enough, the next song was all about “doobie” and smokin’ weed. It was a perfect good-times moment in an ultimately warm and winning performance, and a nice reminder of why the Rusty P’s remain one of Milwaukee’s best (and longest-running) groups.
As for Public Enemy, the hip-hop legends gave the crowd exactly what it wanted: undeniable hits, a lively and at-times chaotic stage show, and extended Flavor Flav slap-bass and drum solos. 54-year-old (!) frontman Chuck D has lost little of his booming voice and outsized presence since the band broke big in the late ’80s, and he spent much of Thursday’s show leaping across the stage, throwing his mic into the air, and spitting out stone-cold classics like “Bring The Noise,” “Don’t Believe The Hype,” and even motherfucking “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos.” All throughout, two S1Ws in full fatigues performed their solemn duties of keeping the peace on stage.
Hype-man extraordinaire Flavor Flav, meanwhile, didn’t appear until a song or two in; when he did, the crowd went bonkers. Though there were plenty of ponderous diversions courtesy of the 56-year-old (!) clown prince—the aforementioned bass and drum solos, a shout-out to all his fans who supported his reality TV career—Flav aptly demonstrated how crucial he is to PE’s success. Songs like “911 Is A Joke” and “Can’t Truss It” sounded just as incendiary and vital as they did decades ago, thanks in no small part to Flav’s presence. Plus, he was wearing an oversized Food Network T-shirt.
Near the middle of the set, Chuck D paused to salute the Milwaukee hip-hop community. His tribute sounded sincere. (On the flip-side, the frontman had a lot of trash talk for the Bucks throughout the night.) It was suddenly easy to see the through line between a band like Public Enemy and a band like the Rusty P’s: Though miles apart in style, both groups thrive on personality, camaraderie, and history. Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and the rest of PE spent much of their set boasting about “real hip-hop.” It was certainly a good night for it.